My alarm went off at 3:30 am. I had an early flight that morning. Reluctantly, I got out of bed, made coffee, and fed my dog, Snowball. I still had to finish packing. Going to be a long, long day, I thought to myself. After double-checking the contents of my luggage, I said goodbye to Snowball, promising to be back, as I always do. I left the house at 5:00 am, drove to SFO, and found a parking space.
I picked up my boarding pass for Virgin America flight 0051 to Honolulu, endured the labyrinth of the TSA security line, and found a sit-down restaurant. After my leisurely meal, I purchased an intriguing book entitled The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking. I had just enough time to find a comfortable seat and read the first chapter. This book is going to be interesting, I thought to myself. After a short delay, we boarded the plane.
I found myself seated next to a very young, affluent Chinese couple. We were in row 3, which was designated Main Cabin Select. I welcomed the extra leg room and fell asleep somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.
I was bound for the island of Moloka’i in the Hawaiian archipelago. It is often called the “Friendly Island” because of the abundance of the aloha spirit. Here was an island that was sparsely populated and rarely visited – and island reachable mostly by faith and patience. There had been a leper colony here, and even though medical science cured the disease long ago, a few residents remained due to their connection with the land.
Now the Hawaiian islands had long held a special place in my heart. My first visit, in April 2002, took me to the “Big Island” of Hawai’i. I reserved an ocean front condominium in Kailua-Kona. This setting is where Lane and I began as a couple. The two of us also visited Waikiki, on the island of Oahu, in December 2002 and April 2004. It was during our second visit, strolling along Kalakaua Avenue when we stopped by a street vendor and purchased matching silver rings. Our wedding bands, so to speak. After Lane had passed away in November 2010, I pondered when I would ever have the strength to return to these magical islands, knowing full well that the memories might overpower me.
I woke up just in time to view the west end of Moloka’i slowly rolling past some 30,000 feet underneath. It was mostly light brown in color, in contrast to the vibrant green on the east end. I could see ranches and farms dotting the sparse landscape – and little else. I’ll be there soon, I said to myself, as we crossed the ocean towards Oahu. The contrast between these two islands was stark. Compared to the serenity of the former, the latter was overdeveloped with buildings, roads, and cars as far as the eye could see. I knew I had made the right choice. I needed peace and relaxation.
After six hours in the air, we landed in Honolulu. I had three and a half hours before my next flight to Moloka’i – just enough time to finish another chapter or two. The airport was a flurry of activity, with impatient vacationers and stressed out employees. It is hard to concentrate on the book with all of this disjointed energy surrounding me, but I made a valiant effort. Eventually, I decided to visit the garden located on the airport grounds – I needed a respite from the chaos.
Afterward, I made my way to the Commuter Terminal, passed through security, and waited to board the nine-passenger, single-engine plane. We were led outside onto the tarmac where I briefly chatted up the handsome pilot. I told him that my father was a pilot as well. He seemed to be pleased and gave me a knowing smile. I found my seat in the cramped cabin and listened to the safety spiel delivered by the same captain. Very soon, we were airborne. After we crossed the body of water separating the islands, I could just barely see the northern cliffs. We landed 35 minutes later.
The airport consisted of a single building, one runway, and a single car rental office. I picked up my car, having to cross a roadway and some dirt. Things are different here, I thought to myself. Just go with it. I found my way out of the airport and onto Highway 460, heading west. At times, it seemed as though my car was alone on that lonely stretch. I turned right onto Kalua Koi Road and noticed that I was gradually descending. Occasionally, a car would zoom past me in the opposite direction. The top speed limit in Moloka’i is 45 mph, and it was challenging for me not to exceed this rate. I knew I was getting close to my destination, as I could see the Pacific Ocean from my vantage point. I turned right onto Kepuhi Place and found the parking lot. I found a parking space and then made my way to building 21, unit 2214.
The unit was a studio condominium on the second floor of the building. The lower level consisted of a bathroom, closet, kitchen, dining area, living room, and balcony. The upper level contained the loft with a king-sized bed and tropical netting. The view from the balcony was breathtaking! I could see the ocean in between palm trees and other buildings closer to the beach. I quickly unpacked and then lingered for a while on the balcony. I felt calm for the first time that day. Suddenly, I heard a knock. Who could that be? I opened the door to find Carol, the owner of the unit. She welcomed me to the island and offered a bottle of rosé as a welcoming gift. We chatted for a few minutes and then she left. I drank nearly half the bottle that first night, which is rather unusual for me. Just before the sun set, I made my way to the rocky beach over a narrow path across a field of wild grass. I was overcome with joy, witnessing the glory of the waves as they crashed on the shore. The island embraced me, and I, with my arms outstretched, embraced it in return.
I woke up with a slight hangover from all the wine I consumed the night before. I was hungry, and there was no food in the house (except some rice), so I decided to drive into Kaunakakai, the main town in the center of the island. I heard about the legendary Kanemitsu Bakery and decided that I would pick up something there first. The drive took 25 minutes – again with hardly any traffic. As I drove east on Highway 460, I felt myself becoming one with the island and its slower pace. I noticed that it became easier for me not to exceed 45 mph. After I had passed the airport, I saw an intersection. To my left was highway 470, which would take me to Kualapu’u and the northern cliffs. To my right, was a continuation of Highway 460, heading south towards town. I headed south and noticed that a few more cars and trucks were sharing the road. After about five miles, I started seeing churches of all denominations dotting the left side of the road. Must be getting close to town, I thought.
I turned left onto Ala Malama Ave, passing the only Chevron station on the island, and found a parking spot in front of Misaki’s Grocery and Dry Goods. Here in downtown Kaunakakai, you could find a random collection of establishments in dilapidated, single-story wooden buildings. A few locals were hanging out in front of the grocery; they were all sunburnt, time-withered, and probably drunk. I knew that Moloka’i had the highest level of unemployment of all the Hawaiian islands. I eventually came to know that the spirit of Ohana seemed to soften the poverty. The alternative was more development, more jobs, and more crowds – just what the locals didn’t want. Just go with it, kiddo, I reminded myself again. I got out of the car, still suffering from the aftermath of the rosé, locked the door, and headed across the street.
I picked up a raspberry pastry and coffee from the Kanemitsu Bakery, noticing the unusual, understated decor. This bakery/restaurant was a mom-and-pop establishment where everyone was on a first-name basis (except for the occasional, infrequent tourist). It must have been painfully obvious to them that I was a tourist; and while they were polite, they were somewhat more distant with me than they were with the locals. I smiled at the young woman who handed me the pastry and coffee and thanked her with a well-practiced mahalo (thank you in Hawaiian). I left the bakery and then headed down the street towards a convenience store. I needed some flip-flops. Eventually, I found a pair and then picked up some organic bananas. Again, I noted a friendly-but-distant demeanor from the elderly lady who took my money. What the hell do you expect, the royal treatment?! You’re a temporary guest, and that’s the way things are here. These were the words that came to me, so clearly. I will embrace you as long as you respect my people and my land. Did I hear the voice of the island itself? The word “respect” would take on a special meaning later that day.
Soon I headed north on Highway 470 towards the Kalaupapa Lookout in Palaau State Park. I noticed that the landscape was getting greener; it was also getting cooler. I found myself singing to myself as I took it all in, mile after lonely mile. I was in no hurry and wasn’t quite sure what I would find when the road came to an end. Eventually, it came to a dead-end in a small parking lot, completely devoid of any vehicles. I parked, got out of the car, and walked down the trail through a forest of tall trees. I’m sure I was the only human within miles of this beautiful place. I could hear the sounds of birds and the wind rustling the trees. There was a fine mist, partially shrouding the view ahead. I was enchanted. Eventually, I passed through the mist into the sun, and finally, to the edge of the cliff and the majestic splendor of the Pacific Ocean. I stood there for a long time, taking it all in. I could see the peninsula jutting out, barely rising above sea-level. This area was the location of the leper colony; some of the descendants chose to remain there, as it was home to them.
I returned to the car, cold and moist, and then drove back to the condo. I rested on the sofa for a bit. Feeling refreshed, I put on my convenience store flip-flops and headed for the rocky beach. I felt compelled to explore every crevice and pond. I was mesmerized by the waves and drew myself closer to the ocean. I then did something that I was advised never to do – I turned my back, momentarily, to the mighty Pacific Ocean. Suddenly, I was waist-deep in water from an unusually large and powerful wave. My right flip-flop was abruptly yanked off, and I nearly lost my balance from the onslaught. That would have been tragic, with all of the sharp, volcanic rocks underneath. There’s that word again, respect. This place demands it. Simple and yet profound. After recovering my lost flip-flop, I headed out to the warm, dry sand and had an epiphany: the spirit of the island had baptized me. I stood still for a moment, trying to absorb this realization.
I walked back to the condo, wet and laughing all the way.
The next day, I picked up some Kona coffee for my friend Jeff at an establishment called, appropriately, Coffees of Hawaii. A light rain was falling, so I quickly made my way to the building and found cover. The aroma of various types of coffee intoxicated me. With the help of a friendly, young lady, I found the requested blend and then bought another bag for myself.
The rain was lifting when I traveled back into town to get some cash. I knew that there was an ATM at Hotel Molokai, but I took a wrong turn and ended up on the pier to Maui! Doubling back, I eventually found the hotel. There were quite a few people here, in stark contrast to the lonely stretch of land I called home for six days. After I had withdrawn some cash, I decided to stroll around the property. Eventually, I made my way through the bar/restaurant and found myself gazing at the southern end of the island. The sunlight danced over the water, and in the distance, I could see Maui. I could hear the opening strains of “Bali Hai” so clearly in my head. I was enchanted. Suddenly, I felt as though I was trespassing on private property – which I was. I made a quick departure and found my way to Molokai Pizza Cafe for lunch. I drove back to the condo, stomach full of bad pizza.
I spent as much time as I could by the beach, taking in the wind and water, feeling as though I were a part of this land, lost in time. The malaise of civilization became a distant memory, and I was like a child unencumbered by the burdens and responsibilities of modern life. I felt more connected to my true essence than I had in a long time. I was in touch with Spirit, and I knew at that moment that this was where I most wanted to be.
The remainder of my stay went without incident. I tried, unsuccessfully, to spot whales from the balcony. When I was hungry, I ate. When I was tired, I rested. I managed to finish the book I had purchased at the airport. There were other books in the condo as well. One of them was titled Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog. It was a heartwarming, bittersweet story of a dog and a man who found each other in the Utah desert. I could easily relate to this story; my dog and I found each other in September 2007 – although under different circumstances. I finished that book as well, holding back tears.
On the last day, I packed and drove back to the airport. I had mixed feelings that morning. I didn’t want to leave, but I also missed my life back in Benicia. I returned the rental car, made my way to the small terminal, and waited. Some outbound flights were delayed, but thankfully, mine wasn’t. As I walked across the tarmac to board the plane, I captured a picture of a double-rainbow. And as the plane rose off the ground, the ends of the double-rainbow had come together to form two nearly perfect concentric circles. I had never seen anything quite so amazing in my life!
I knew at that moment that I would return some day.